The Spectator's Notes

The Spectator's Notes: French presidents used to have a touch of the monarch. Not any more

Plus: Requiem for a spymaster, and a defence of Radio 3's diversity

18 January 2014

9:00 AM

18 January 2014

9:00 AM

When I interviewed Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, the former president of France, for my biography of Margaret Thatcher, I asked him why, when she lunched with him at the Elysée Palace for the first time, he had been served before her: she had been offended. M. Giscard explained that no slight had been intended. It was a matter of protocol — the president is the head of state, the British prime minister only the head of government. ‘You must remember,’ he added, ‘that the president is in the line of sovereigns.’ I recalled these words when reading about President Hollande and his amorous adventures in his helmet. To the British, it is a puzzle that French presidents are protected from the media scrutiny we inflict on our own leaders. We tend to explain the difference by resorting to national stereotypes about Gallic lovers. Surely the ‘line of sovereigns’ point is more important. In creating the Fifth Republic, General de Gaulle consciously reclaimed kingship: ‘I have re-established the monarchy in my favour,’ he said. If the president is the king, an attack on him is an attack on France, so his privacy is a matter of state. Besides, kings, by unwritten right, were free to do whatever they wanted sexually. It was an expression of their power. So any attempt by the media to impede M. Hollande’s scooter and send him back home to what the Today programme oddly called ‘the First French Lady’ (by no means his first, actually) is not just cheeky journalism: it is almost unconstitutional. The trouble nowadays, though, is that the faith of the French in their monarchy is weakening. The president’s term is shorter than it was, and this president has made a mess of the economy. Now his grandeur is comically impaired. When he spoke of re-establishing the monarchy, De Gaulle went on to say this: ‘but after me, no one will be able to impose himself upon the country’. Is his prophecy coming true?

Due to ill-considered layout, the separate headlines on pages two and three of Tuesday’s Times read across to make one: ‘I can save middle classes, I forgive you … if I can still be First Lady/ Miliband tells voters’.

By definition, the best operators in the secret world are little known. So they do not get the tributes they deserve. Sir Christopher Curwen, the former head of MI6, was one such. When he died recently, no one outside his trade much noticed. But he was an outstanding man for his combined interest in the detail and the big picture, and his devotion, like a good military commander, to the welfare of his troops. Like a lot of old-school, unbureaucratic types, he was not interested in status. He laughed at his colleagues’ longing to leave Century House, the hideous HQ in Lambeth: ‘They just want to be nearer their clubs. I’m a South Bank man.’ In those days, SIS was not ‘avowed’. Its very existence was secret. This meant that it was actually less powerful than it is today, which was a good thing. It simply got on with its job of finding out whatever could not be found by other means. Today, it is involved in policy, at the heart of government, showered with money. As a result, it is differently led. The modern ‘C’ has to play Whitehall games, even to perform in public. He is pretty much like any other senior civil servant in the Blair-Brown-Cameron era, preoccupied by the struggle for personal survival. Chris Curwen worked less hard for his position, much harder for his country.

Now there is to be an inquiry into child abuse in Northern Irish institutions which will go back to 1922 — to the partition of Ireland, in other words — and end in 1995. According to its senior counsel, it will ‘examine the soul of Northern Ireland in that period’. Are we shaping up for a report in which the province is proved to have been an abusive entity throughout its 20th-century history, as is now alleged against the Catholic South? Actually, there might be a grain of truth in such a theory. One of the horrors of petty nationalism is that it drives tribes in upon themselves so that they wink at abuses among their own. The push for an independent Catholic republic made it natural for Ulster unionists to want ‘a Protestant Parliament for a Protestant people’. Neither side wished to question its own righteousness. If we get an independent Scotland, I bet its care provisions for children will deteriorate, because people working within the new statelet will feel too frightened of the tribal leaders to blow the whistle.

On Saturday, I turned on Radio 3 and heard the fag-end of a discussion about why many less educated young people feel that classical music is not for them. According to an opinion survey, the chief reason they gave was that the people who performed such music were ‘not like us’. The logic, the programme suggested, was that more performers who were like them should be found. Is this right? Imagine a similar answer in a different context. Imagine that young, uneducated white people said they didn’t like black people because they were ‘not like us’. Would policy-makers agree that this was a valid objection? On the contrary, they would say that the difference of colour was an invigorating example of a diversity which should be celebrated. Surely one of the joys of great art, notably classical music, is that it presents what is different, and lifts you out of your rut. If it is constantly hacked about to make itself more ‘accessible’, it no longer offers this chance.

A programme called Warhorses of Letters, starring Stephen Fry and Daniel Rigby, has just restarted on Radio 4. It purports to be the love letters exchanged between Napoleon’s horse, Marengo, and Wellington’s horse, Copenhagen. How could such an embarrassingly twee and cloying enterprise be offered on the BBC in the 21st century, I asked myself. Then I quickly realised the answer: the Entente Cordiale between the two animals is a gay one, and therefore beyond the harsh breath of criticism.

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

You might disagree with half of it, but you’ll enjoy reading all of it. Try your first 10 weeks for just $10

Show comments
  • gram64

    This shows the inadvisability of having a Head of State, whether it be a president or a monarch, who is not above politics. Our system is so much better – the monarch can do no more than advise and warn. The Prime Minister is the head political honcho, and doesn’t have to be subject to the absurd and awkward deference shown by the Parisian press corps to Hollande.